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Budget 2017: Liberals try to ease anxiety and get Canada ready for the future

Budget 2017: get ready for a changing world

  • Mar. 22, 2017 5:00 a.m.

OTTAWA — The future is coming at you, fast, and the Liberal government says it knows you’re getting anxious — and potentially angry.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau delivered a federal budget Wednesday that aims to get Canadians ready for a changing world and potentially shield the Liberals from the forces that brought U.S. President Donald Trump to power.

“Everyday folks who work hard to provide for their families are worried about the future,” Morneau said in his speech to the House of Commons as he tabled the 2017 federal budget, the second since the Liberals formed a majority government in 2015.

“They’re worried that rapid technological change, the seemingly never-ending need for new skills and growing demands on our time will mean that their kids won’t have the same opportunities that they had. And who can blame them?”

After setting up the doom and gloom, Morneau knocked it down: Canadians, he said, have always been able to adapt to changing circumstances.

And the budget, with its lower-than-expected deficit projection of $25.5 billion for the coming fiscal year — it swells to $28.5 billion when a $3 billion contingency reserve is included — is designed to help them get there.

The budget includes about $5.2 billion for skills development, to help Canadians adapt their education and employment training to a diversifying economy — one in which the natural resource sector offers no guarantees of jobs or sustained federal revenues.

It aims to get out-of-work Canadians back to school or retrained without giving up their employment insurance benefits, includes a pilot project to explore making it easier for adults to access student loans and grants, and encourages young people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

But the Liberals aren’t just trying to help Canadians find jobs in the future. They’re also trying to bring that future about.

The budget commits nearly $3 billion to support innovation over the next five years and promises to develop an innovation and skills plan that will target six sectors the Liberal government see as good bets for spurring economic growth and creating well-paying jobs: advanced manufacturing, clean technology, the agri-food sector, digital industries, clean resources and health and bio-sciences.

As the Liberals work to ensure everyone can find a job in the new economy, they are also giving a boost to many who were left behind by the traditional one, such as women and Indigenous Peoples.

The budget commits $7 billion over the next decade to help increase access to affordable child care, allow women to begin maternity leave earlier and support those caring for an ill or aging relative — all seen as ways to help increase the participation of women in the workforce.

For the first time in Canadian history, the budget also includes a section on how many of its measures impact men and women in different ways, with a promise to do a deeper gender-based analysis for the 2018 budget.

While relatively thin on net new spending, the budget’s new promises still come with a cost, especially since the federal government is still footing the bill for the gigantic, ongoing commitments from last year.

Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose said the budget does little to ease the anxiety of those ordinary Canadians — oil rig workers, hairstylists, family farmers — unmoved by soaring Liberal rhetoric about innovation.

“If you have what’s called a ‘super cluster venture capital accelerator,’ you’re in luck,” Ambrose sneered. “Those are the kinds of people that are going to get a break, not regular working people.”

The New Democrats went after the plan to welcome more private investment in public infrastructure, which they argue will mean investors getting rich off the backs of Canadians through tolls and user fees.

Canadians can expect a five-cent increase in EI premiums in fiscal 2018-19, up to $1.68 per $100 of insurable earnings, with some of that additional cost coming from the measures that will give more people access to benefits.

The budget hits the pocketbooks of Canadians in other ways, as well. Gone is a public transit tax credit; tobacco and alcohol taxes are going up, and ride-sharing businesses, such as Uber, will be subject to the same sales taxes as traditional taxis.

The deficit still remains nearly three times the $10-billion limit the Liberals promised in their campaign platform. And although it is shrinking more quickly than expected, there is still no official word on when it will be eliminated entirely.

This budget also removes a pledge to reduce the ratio of federal debt to GDP over the course of their mandate, which, after busting past their promise to eliminate the deficit by 2019, was the only fiscal target they had left.

— Follow @smithjoanna on Twitter

Joanna Smith, The Canadian Press

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